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What Makes a Guest Great? Tips from Talk Show Pros

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If you’re interested in promoting a book on radio or TV shows, you’ve probably watched or listened to hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews over the course of your life. But how many of those interviews truly stand out? If you’re lucky, perhaps a handful. If you’re very lucky, perhaps a larger handful. The point is, a great interview doesn’t happen often, and it rarely happens by accident.

In an attempt to help attain that interview nirvana a bit more often, I asked top talent and producers to share their thoughts on guests they considered the cream of the crop. My interviewees covered a broad spectrum, from hot talk to conservative talk to women’s talk to sports talk to talk-intensive music morning shows. Obviously, the individual hosts and producers as well as the target demographics of the programs and stations determine some of the answers. But, as you will see, some basic qualities of a great guest transcend format and individual differences.

My questions were:

What are the qualities of a great guest?

Could you give specific examples of guests you thought were great,

whether or not they are well known?

If you could give one tip to a guest who was going to appear on your

show, what would it be?

ٱ A great guest has energy and an interesting topic, is conv’s ltional, and says either very intelligent or very stupid things. I tell my guests to crank up the energy. Make it sound like it’s the first time you’re talking about the subject, and be enthused.–Ronn Owens, host, KGO, San Francisco

ٱ Great guests don’t have preconceived ideas of where the conversation is going to go. They trust the host knows to give out the Web site and the book’s name. They don’t try so hard. They follow the host’s lead and just let go. Baseball Hall of Fame announcer Ernie Harwell was a great guest because he was comfortable with himself. My guest tip: Don’t have your guard up. Accept that even a less-than-stellar interview as a real person will be far more memorable than one as a polished, slick “guest.”–Jeff Deminski, host, Live 97.1 FM, Detroit

ٱ A great guest is upbeat, passionate, and real about whatever they are on the show to discuss. Some people forget that they are on the air, so they just talk, without any feeling. They drone on. Many authors forget that their on-air performance should be as interesting as the prose they create. My advice to guests is to listen–both to the interviewer and to the callers. Unfortunately, some guests are so intent on cramming in all the knowledge they possess on a given subject, and/or are so busy plugging their book, that they don’t listen. The audience will pick up a guest’s self-absorption quicker than I can give the station ID.–Hilarie Barsky, host, CFUN, Vancouver, B.C.

ٱ A great guest has passion, convictions, and a touch of a chip on the shoulder. Any two of the three will make you a pretty good guest. Civil rights leader James Farmer was great, although, as he entered the studio, I thought, “Wow–is this old guy worn out!” But while he was physically infirm, his mind and voice were sound, and he took Americans on a journey now known only to elderly blacks: It was chillingly compelling. My tip for guests is to give direct answers. You can elaborate if you wish, but at least say something that approximates an answer to my question.–Jim Bohannon, host, Westwood One Radio, Washington, D.C.

ٱ We are in the conversation business, and the guest advances the process the same way a witness does in a trial. The key to being great guest is boiling material down to terms where listeners can agree or disagree. I like guests who will disagree with me but allow for areas where we agree. Think of the interview as a conversation, but an animated one. Get your energy level up!–Dom Giordano, host, WPHT, Philadelphia

ٱ A great guest is someone who speaks in sound bites but is happy to embellish if asked. Sadly, many authors are bad talkers. Tom Bergeron, host of Hollywood Squares, is an awesome guest. He’s not famous, but he is funny and he plays along. If we’re talking about Polish sausage on the show for some reason, he will have five minutes of Polish sausage stories, and he can still creatively sell his show without it sounding like a commercial.–John Scott, producer, STAR 101.3 FM, San Francisco

ٱ My favorite interview, and one of the toughest, was the late Charles Schulz, the author of “Peanuts.” I had him on a talk show one night during a baseball strike to discuss Charlie Brown’s team, since they weren’t on strike. He was ultrashy and couldn’t believe the topic. However, he knew that I was prepared and that I was a fan, and he began to trust the premise. I can still hear him laughing at the thought of Charlie Brown’s team not striking.

On television, the best guest is somebody who is not afraid of the camera and who embraces it. I can think of a few NHL players, like Jeremy Roenick, who steal the camera, and that’s fine with me. My advice for someone I’m going to interview is to have fun and enjoy the ride.–Todd Walsh, host, Fox Sports Net Arizona, KDKB-FM, Phoenix

ٱ Have some energy!!!! There is a zero-tolerance policy on boring guests on our show, I don’t care who they are. If one slips in, we’ll hang up. Most two-bit activists are great guests because they know what they want to say and have a strong passion for it. Advice for guests? Get to the point. Don’t filibuster. Don’t go off on tangents. Answer the question. Don’t play the game of ignoring the question so you can stay on message. We’ll point it out, embarrass you, and then hang up.–John Kobylt, host, KFI, Los Angeles

ٱ First off, a guest needs to get it–that is, a guest needs to realize that radio is an intimate, one-on-one medium. You’re not standing at a podium talking to an assembled audience. You’re talking to a host, and being listened to by one audience member at a time. Guests need to listen too, to figure out what the host needs from them. Guests also need to realize that talk radio is entertainment. That doesn’t mean that they need to be something they are not. But if they aren’t entertaining, the host isn’t going to want to have them on very long, won’t have them back again, and won’t recommend them to others in the industry.

One guest who stands out on our station is a local attorney by the name of Joe Friedberg. He understands that a host wants smart and honest answers, little or no spin, natural, entertaining conversation, a sense of humor, and a wonderful ability to explain the complex in entertaining, understandable terms. Ann Coulter also comes to mind. She might not always pass muster on the spin criterion, but she is entertaining, strong in her convictions, and good at explaining her points without sounding like a boring college professor.–Joe O’Brien, program director/host, KSTP, Minneapolis/St. Paul

ٱ I treat guests the same way I treat callers to my show. That is, the guest and I engage in a conversation for the purpose of informing and entertaining the audience with pacing and content sufficiently strong to stimulate further callers and development of the topic(s). Whether it has been John Lott on gun control or Arnold Schwarzenegger on running for governor, guests (just like callers) last only so long on the air as they continue to stimulate me through interesting information provided in an entertaining way.–Roger Hedgecock, host, KOGO, San Diego

I hope you found the words of these professionals helpful. Use them as a guide to help you tackle an interview or understand why a particular interview did or didn’t go as planned. My own advice on being a great guest? Trust your instincts; never forget who’s listening, and do everything you can to make the interview entertaining.

Roberta Gale has appeared on the radio in every part of the country during the past 22 years. Her programs have aired nationally on Westwood One radio Networks and ABC Talk Radio Network. President of Roberta Gale Media Coaching, which provides media training to authors, experts, spokespeople, and businesses, she can be reached via www.robertagale.com. A version of this article also appeared in Talkers magazine.

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